Adam was my childhood best friend until a group of boys from the school started bullying him. I had a choice: join the bullies or face ostracism myself. Eleven year-old me had a questionable moral compass so I severed my friendship with Adam and started picking on him. Then primary school ended and we went our separate ways, never to speak again, even though we lived in the same neighbourhood. I grew to be slightly less of a dipshit and regretted what I did but not that little of a dipshit to actually apologize to Adam. At the age of 18, he died of leukemia.
I had no intention of attending the funeral. I was too ashamed. My Mom, however, warned me that if I didn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. So I went and spent an hour watching the harrowing spectacle of Adam’s mother wailing over his coffin, with most of my former classmates somewhere in the background, paying respects to a dead boy we never showed any respect while he was still alive. We even bought a funeral wreath. The lesson I learned from that is probably not the one my Mom expected. It costs much less to buy someone flowers after they die than to look them in the face when they’re still alive.
Before that day, death only existed for me as a childhood memory too early to have meaning and as something that happened to people on TV and in newspapers. Adam’s funeral made death real. It was the first time I seriously thought about death and I have been thinking about it a lot since. Much more, in fact, than a healthy(-ish) person in their mid-twenties should. But not in a metaphysical sense. I harbor no delusions of afterlife, nor hope that post-mortem we are anything more than rotting tissue. No Samsara, no God to take an account of our deeds. The only afterlife I’m interested in is the one on earth. Because death is meaningless for the dead. It belongs to the living.
I fantasize about my funeral. If a car ran me over today and my friends and family were to gather in a few days, what would they talk about, what stories would they share, how would they remember me? I am anxious to know who would come (or who would not come) and who would cry. Some of my closest people live abroad – have I been enough of a friend to warrant the expense of plane tickets? Would there be any people I’d see and think what are you doing here, I’d never come to your funeral.
People go to great lengths to forget facts as part of their remembrance efforts. The best thing about being dead is good PR. When I was four, a family member died. The memory of that day is blurry. What I remember vividly, is the sting of truth years later. My memories of that person were just snapshots of him joking around, handing out candy to me and my cousins, and taking us for walks. Sound lad, as I was lead to believe for long after his death. Then someone explained to me he was an abusive shit who drank himself to death.
We avoid speaking ill of the dead as if dying itself was a virtue worth honoring. To be posthumously hated, you need to live a remarkably vile life. It’s a place reserved for the Mussolinis, Francos, and Thatchers of the world. Unless you’re a war-mongering maniac or starve children on principle, death will do miracles for your personal brand.
In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes wrote: It doesn’t matter what they put on your tomb. In the hierarchy of the dead it is visitor numbers that count. For someone convinced his existence will cease with the end of electrochemical activity in the brain, I’m very self-conscious about my numbers. That’s because I want to think my death will have meaning. Not in that naive, romanticized, he died on the barricades way. Few causes are worth dying for and I don’t expect to see myself on the frontlines for any of them. I want it to have meaning for someone. Like Adam’s death meant something to me. I want someone to sit at their desk and write a pretentious essay about how Wojtek’s death meant something to them. A death that doesn’t matter is a waste of good life.
Artists like to quip that you die twice. Once when you stop breathing, and again when somebody mentions your name for the last time. I’m afraid of many things but being forgotten is even worse than needles and dentists. I’m afraid to die, because after I do, I won’t be around to remind people I have existed. My death will belong to those I will have left behind and what if they just can’t be bothered? How long will it take them to move on – or what if I drop dead without as much as a thump, making so little impact that no moving on will even be required?
Not long ago I heard a rumor of a violent death of a college friend. I kept checking her Facebook page every couple of minutes, grasping for news. Confirmation came in an unexpected way – I typed her name into the search field, like I did a hundred times before that day, except this time there were no hits. Just like that she was gone from the internet and from the world.
The prospect of vanishing is universally terrifying. We’re so scared of oblivion that it’s not even a concept in almost any religion. You can burn forever in hell or be reborn into a cockroach but there is no sin grave enough for the gods to erase you completely. Unless, that is, you live down in the Serengeti, among the Hadza. They are one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth and they have no concepts of remembrance or afterlife. Their approach to death is as pragmatic as it gets. In the words of journalist Michael Finkel:
The Hadza are not sentimental like that. They don’t do extended goodbyes. Even when one of their own dies, there is not a lot of fuss. They dig a hole and place the body inside. A generation ago, they didn’t even do that—they simply left a body out on the ground to be eaten by hyenas. There is still no Hadza grave marker. There is no funeral. There’s no service at all, of any sort. This could be a person they had lived with their entire life. Yet they just toss a few dry twigs on top of the grave. And they walk away.
Hadza do fine without afterlife, just as they do without calendar, marriage, fiat currency, and a host of other things we both aspire and are hostage to. I won’t idealize that. I wouldn’t exchange my ordinary life, with modern healthcare, fast Wi-Fi, and pizza-stained sweatpants for their daily routines. But I admire and envy their shunning of the requiem. While I fret over how I’ll present myself in rigor mortis, whether people will be distracted with their phones during my funeral, and how long will it take my friends to upgrade to better, still-alive friends, Hadza just drop dead and no one bothers.
I don’t want to live like Hadza. But I sure as hell want to die like one.
Wojtek Borowicz is a Polish immigrant living in Dublin. When he’s not thinking about death, he’s busy working in tech, writing, or scrolling through a feed full of memes. He graduated Culture Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.